Going through a list of the most illustrious footballers per decade, some interesting trends will appear, in terms of the position they play for. Naturally, the majority of them are attackers.
This definitely includes those who score goals and loads of them. It will also include the most creative of players who create chances out of nothing. There are also speedy wingers who terrorize defenders using their flicks and turns. Just to cite the last decade, the best players’ list will most definitely include the likes of Messi, C Ronaldo, Lewandowski, Robben, Suarez, Rooney, van Persie, Ozil, Aguero, Hazard and more. The next category could include midfielders. These include the box- to- box ones who make the lung-busting runs. There are others, the midfield controllers, and creators from further behind. Further, there may even be the modern-day defensive midfielders whose job is merely to win the ball. The latter is a relatively new development in football. Goal scoring midfielders are also much prized. Defenders are less well-known; but who can forget the towering partnerships, and those that make the last-ditch tackles. Goalkeepers are remembered either for the spectacular or the blunders. Full-backs, though, barely make the grade.
The plight of Full-backs
In fact, the famous Italian striker, Gianluca Vialli once went to the extent of calling full-backs, especially those on the right as the least gifted of players. His contention was that the best of defenders played centrally, while left-back had a bit more value due to the uniqueness of being left-footed players. A few players have moved out of this pigeonholing to emerge as top players. The list would include Roberto Carlos and two more Italians in Paolo Maldini and Giacinto Facchetti. But largely, full-backs were the ignored men, there merely to make up the numbers in a team game. To use an analogy from the Hindu epic of Mahabharata, full-backs have been like Nakul and Sahdev among the five Pandavas (the less relevant of the 5 brothers central to the epic).
Full-backs were the ignored men, there merely to make up the numbers in a team game.
But all that is changing now. Full- backs are now amongst the most prized of players. There have been recent sales in multiple tens of millions of pounds for the likes of Kyle Walker, Aaron-Wan-Bissaka, Benjamin Mendy, and even Lucas Hernandez, who is also able to play more centrally. Why did this happen?
Rise of Inverted Wingers
Unlike two decades back when David Beckham and Ryan Giggs would terrorize defenders by whipping in crosses from wide areas, getting chalk on their feet, most of the top wingers these days play inverted.
Watch: Giggs and Beckham link up from wing to wing
Robben and Ribery, until their separation a year back, or Mahrez and Sterling at Manchester City, ply their trade on ‘opposite’ wings. The right-footed player plays on the left and vice- versa. This means that width, still an important part of the game, has to be supplied by the full-backs. The latter in turn now play far ahead. Bursting pace is no longer optional, but an essential attribute for the modern full-back as he needs to run the length of the pitch.
The decline of Goal-scoring Midfielders
There was a time not that long back when Frank Lampard alone would score twenty- plus goals season after season. Fellow Englishmen Steven Gerrard and Paul Scholes, and German legend Michael Ballack were not too far off. Add to them the Spaniard – Cesc Fabregas. But now, these kinds of midfielders are rarer. The best of them average less than ten a season, even when they aren’t overly defensive. The ‘Pep-ization’ of the game, has left an indelible mark. Pep Guardiola, the legendary manager has ensured that midfielders are now required more to control possession rather than to score goals. Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, Koke, Piotr Zielinski, Jordan Henderson, and Nicolo Barella, all set the trend. None of them are overly defensive, but they do not score the Lampard- like goals.
Watch: The Death of Attacking Midfielders
Pep has even helped his full-backs to mature more centrally on the pitch as he did with Lahm and Alaba at Bayern Munich and with Walker and Delph at City. The inverted wingers are more or less forwards now, not expected to perform their defensive duties much. This places an added impetus on the midfielders to keep possession. As they are now closer to the defense, full-backs can be more adventurous and attack ahead. The newly- crowned English champions Liverpool have offered a version of this. They have extremely hard-working, rather ‘functional’ midfielders, who allow the forwards to be at their deadliest, with able support from the flying full-backs in Andrew Robertson and Trent- Alexander Arnold.
Three at the Back
Like trends in fashion, tactics in football disappear and reemerge. Wing-forwards died out during the Beckham- Giggs heyday, but remerged thanks in large part to the Robben- Ribery axis. Likewise, the concept of three center-backs has also found its way back. While Italian manager Antonio Conte has been using this for quite some time, the style found mainstream adoption in the wake of the 2014 World Cup. Louis van Gaal, the Manchester United- bound manager of the Dutch national team, used it to great effect. A relatively average team went all the way to the semi-finals by using a highly- disciplined version of the three- at- the- back, which gave the greatest freedom to leverage the talents of the front two of Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie.
While Italian manager Antonio Conte has been using the back three for quite some time, the style found mainstream adoption in the wake of the 2014 World Cup.
Several teams now apply some version of the three- at- the- back. This allows the full-backs far greater attacking freedom. They are now the ‘wing-backs’, tasked with goal- scoring and creation. The best utilization of the same right now is possibly taking place at German team Borussia Dortmund, where since the post- lockdown restart, it is Moroccan- Portuguese wing-back duo of Achraf Hakimi and Raphael Guerreiro who have run the show.
Messi- Ronaldo Effect
Ultimately in modern football, no tactical development can be discussed without due mention of this incredible duo. While 30 goals a season is still considered top-notch, these two have regularly scored 50 or more, and that too for over a decade. And they haven’t managed it by hugging the penalty box. They have full freedom to float around the pitch. The left-footed Messi often nominally starts on the right but spends a good amount of time playing just behind the central striker. Ronaldo for his part starts on the left before coming closer to the goal. Since these two have managed such remarkable goal-scoring feats from the wide areas, several other teams and players have also tried to copy or ape a similar style.
Watch: Ronaldo, Messi and the Greatest Era of Football
Full- backs thus need to be even higher up the pitch. Thus, Gianluca Vialli need not remain smug anymore in his assessment of full-backs. They are now more crucial than ever. Will this trend last? We do not know anything for certain in football, a sport where a decade represents a lifetime. Until the next major tactical tweak though, the full-backs’ criticality promises to remain central. May we have more success stories such as Cafu and Roberto Carlos or Lahm and Alaba.